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UNHCR helps Iraqi Arab returnees

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UNHCR helps Iraqi Arab returnees

18 August 2003

ERBIL, Iraq - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is helping improve water and medical services in villages where displaced Arabs have returned under a programme to stabilize returnee communities in Northern Iraq.

The projects are being undertaken in villages in the Haweeja area west of Kirkuk where some 2,500 newly displaced Arabs in 500 families have gathered in the aftermath of the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government.

At Shawook village, the UN refugee agency is funding the improvement of a water supply system. This involves repairs on the water treatment plant and laying pipes for the supply of potable water. The village of 400 Arabs hosts 85 returnees who had left before to take over lands abandoned as a result of the previous government's crackdown against ethnic minorities, mainly Kurds.

At Tal-Ali village, UNHCR is improving the local health centre which provides medical services to some 7,000 Arab residents and some Kurds in six villages.

In June, UNHCR began a programme to help stabilize communities where internally displaced people, or IDPs, have returned to villages where there are no property disputes or other major problems. In four villages in Makhmour district outside Erbil, and two others in Dohuk, the UN refugee agency has provided tents, blankets, stoves, kitchen sets and jerry cans to returnees. In three of these villages, UNHCR has distributed concrete blocks and cement to enable the returnees to rebuild houses demolished during the campaign against Iraqi Kurds over the past several decades.

The projects in Haweeja are the first to be undertaken in Arab communities.

"The conflicts in Iraq have affected all communities. We believe they should all receive assistance in an even-handed fashion," said Pierre-François Pirlot, UNHCR's regional coordinator for Northern Iraq.

An estimated 800,000 people have been displaced internally in Iraq by conflicts and expulsions of Iraqi Kurds. Most of them are living in appalling conditions in collective centres and abandoned buildings. Since the fall of the previous government, some IDPs have begun returning to their original homes.

UNHCR has expressed concern about returns to areas where there are no shelters or basic infrastructure and where property disputes could provoke new tensions. UNHCR also fears the presence of unexploded ordnance could also pose a threat to returnees.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers during a visit to northern Iraq last month announced the UN refugee agency was initiating a phased programme to help IDPs go back to their original homes. He warned that a mass return to areas particularly in places where there are property disputes could spark renewed conflict.

Elsewhere in Iraq's north, UNHCR is helping to build 70 houses for around 500 Iraqi Kurds returning to Dengawa and Tela Mater under an initiative in which they receive cement, concrete blocks, gravel, sand, door and window frames to rebuild their own homes. This follows earlier distributions of blankets, lamps, stoves and kitchen sets. These Iraqis were able to return to their properties under an arrangement mediated by the CPA that allowed the settlers to receive 50 percent of this year's crop of wheat and barley.

The UN refugee agency has appealed for $90 million for its programmes in Iraq this year and to lay the groundwork for the return of larger numbers of refugees and displaced persons in 2004. So far the agency has received $59 million, mainly from governments, including USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, Kuwait, Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and Spain.